Nottingham Castle: Museum & Art Gallery | From Normans to Tudors |
From Stuarts to the 21st Century
...that extraordinary trademark of a dolls house swimming in chocolate fudge with Nottingham Castle written underneath...
- from the James Bond novel Thunderball
Many visitors to Nottingham Castle are often disappointed when they don't find the romantic image they have in their heads of a huge formidable fortress, complete with battlements, arrow-slits, moat and drawbridge. Ian Fleming's description above was of an image found on John Player cigarette packets, and it is not in fact that of a castle, but the 17th Century Ducal Palace atop the sandstone cliffs that later became the purpose-built Museum & Art Gallery that can be found on the site of the original Nottingham Castle today. But don't be put off by the fact that Nottingham Castle isn't really a castle any more. The site is definitely still worth a visit and the following is a brief tour of what it has to offer.
The entrance to the castle is as it always has been, through the gatehouse. The moat and drawbridge are no longer there, but a circular brickwork courtyard gives a nice modern touch to the dominant twin towers, between which is a covered archway that gives access to the castle grounds. There is the option of either popping into the shop and ticket office in the right-hand bastion, or bypassing it completely and being stopped by one of the museum attendants before being given admittance. This harks back to days of yore when the gatehouse was where the castle guards vetted anyone approaching.
The original 17th Century wooden doors can be seen, and still retain the marks of the Reform Riots of 1831. To the right is the entrance to the shop and ticket office through a small doorway. This small shop holds many gift ideas, such as green felt Robin Hood hats, wooden bows and swords, many postcards and books, (suitably plastered with the words 'Nottingham Castle') along with many more bits and pieces, such as pencil sharpeners, bookmarks and tea towels.
The left-hand bastion holds a suitably rigged out 'Medieval Banqueting Room' with wooden tables, stone fireplace, heraldic shields, and deer antlers hanging above the fireplace. The room is officially where the Sheriff of Nottingham1 holds events, but is often used by school groups for lunch, and hidden to one side of its interior is the entrance to a small 'dungeon'. Legend has it that during the Second World War, the local Dad's Army captured a German airman and imprisoned him in this dungeon. He complained of ill treatment, and on being let out made a dash for it. The guards yelled at him to stop, but he carried on and they opened fire. One bullet apparently ricocheted off the wall of the east bastion and parted a passing woman's hair!
Once you have been granted entrance to the castle, you can proceed into the outer bailey - the modern castle grounds. Here toilets can also be found, the ladies to the left of the Gatehouse, the gents a little further up towards the remains of the Black Tower.
The castle grounds are quite beautiful, the grass green and the many native flowers and trees provide a wonderful botanical display, and there are many spots to lay out a picnic blanket. Amongst the ruins of the outer bailey are pathways to other sections of the castle, and the keen eye will spot 12th Century brickwork (and even the odd fireplace disguised as a bench). Be warned though, the ascent to the museum is quite strenuous, whichever path you take, and those of poor health or frail bodies might like to take it slowly. Before you decide to begin the climb to the top of Castle Rock, you may like to see what else the old outer bailey has to offer:
The Black Tower - In 1976 the remains of the 13th Century Black Tower were excavated, and these can be found on the east side of the castle grounds, just up from a great grey granite obelisk - a Victorian age war memorial. Little is left of this tower but the base and part of the stairs can be made out, as well as some of the middle bailey wall.
Medieval Bridge and 17th Century Terrace Steps - One of the pathways up to the museum takes you over the 12th century bridge across the old dry moat, the stonework of which is all original (including some stone lions). Well, mostly original, as 17th Century additions enabled visitors on foot or by carriage to arrive at the steps of the east terrace of the Ducal Palace. This entrance follows the original line of steps that rose from the middle bailey to the upper bailey. The stairs are quite large for little legs, and in wet weather can become quite slippery.
Castle Green and 'Lookout!' Play Area - The castle green is exactly that, a large expanse of grass where events like the Robin Hood pageant, medieval games, or outdoor theatre are held. Inlaid brickwork marks out the old walls of the Royal Apartments built during the 16th Century, and some of the original middle bailey. Two actual 'castles' and a fort make up the 'Lookout!' play area built and maintained by the Boots Company of Nottingham, and this supplies children (and a few adults) with the opportunity to conduct their very own Robin Hood/Maid Marion/Evil Sheriff battles. The mini wooden battlements with towers and slides will keep them occupied for a while (and there's a 'Lookout!' activity pack available from the museum shop for further ideas). There is covered seating available for those wanting to have a sit-down meal, or just a breather. A wooden throne is also found here - just right for those 'Kodak' moments.
Albert Ball War Memorial - Unveiled to the public in September 1921, the memorial to Nottingham-born First World War flying ace Albert Ball is quite striking. It consists of a bronze statue of Albert gazing up, with the figure of 'Air' behind him. One of her hands rests upon his shoulder, the other pointing skywards - they stand atop a Portland stone pedestal. Engraved upon this are images of Albert's aircraft, and details of the man himself. Wreaths are not uncommon around the base, and benches surround it so you can sit and think on the courage of this humble hero.
Edwardian Bandstand - This old bandstand looks more like a greenhouse, but in the summer months still sees performances by bands or other artists. Just behind the bandstand is a memorial to all the local-born soldiers who have received the Victoria Cross since its inception. Also nearby are the remains of Edward's Tower, and if you look down from this vantage point you can see not only the old moat, complete with bronze statue of Robin Hood, but also some of the original Lace Market buildings.
Museum & Art Gallery
The Ducal Palace of William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, is now the Museum & Art Gallery. This building sits over where the original castle's upper bailey was, and if you follow the outside of the building around to the outer bailey walls you are rewarded with amazing views of Nottingham and its surroundings. On clear days you are able to make out the control tower of East Midlands Airport to one side, and many of the original buildings of early Nottingham, such as the churches of St Mary's and St Nicholas, the Council House, and Notts County and Nottingham Forest Football Grounds to the other. For 20p you can use one of the few viewing telescopes to zoom in on certain focal points, there being suggested sites given on placards along the cliff-top walls. The Ducal Palace is an incredible site in itself up close, its Italian/Flemish-style architecture is as interesting to look at as the contents of the halls and rooms within, all accessible by lift:
Long Gallery - On the first floor of the museum is the Long Gallery, containing many paintings and sculptures. Some of the more famous examples to be found are pieces by LS Lowry, Dame Laura Knight, Richard Parkes Bonington and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. There are two information points with touch-screen monitors to give a more in-depth look at some of the pieces on display, and a small table and chair are provided for the children to bring out the artist in them with pencils and paper provided. Excellent for adults to plonk the kids down, while they can look around the Gallery in relative peace. The Long Gallery is also hired out for corporate or private events out of hours.
Children's Gallery - the Children's Gallery is a small room off the Long Gallery by the lift that often undergoes design changes. Recently it was an 'Enchanted Forest' and then had a 'Beyond the Sea' theme, but will see different styles on a regular basis - always with a child accessible style including sensory objects, dressing up, music and lights and paintings from the museum collection.
Exhibitions Gallery - Found at the top of the stairs from the south hall, the Exhibitions Gallery holds temporary travelling exhibitions. It has been transformed into Sherwood Forest for a Robin Hood experience, and held some rare pieces of both artwork (such as Pre-Raphaelite paintings) and photography from the Victoria & Albert and Tate Modern Galleries.
Upper Ground Floor / Mezzanine
Study Gallery - Upstairs from the 'Threads' exhibit, the Study Gallery holds pieces of silverware (some Rococo), Bles glassware and ceramics, including Wedgwood, in a bright and airy setting. The glass display cabinets and mirrors in the room give the onlooker the best view of some of the wonderful pieces.
Mezzanine Gallery - Around from the Study Gallery is a balcony area that holds temporary exhibits, usually of clothing or rare pieces that need low-lighting to ensure they remain undamaged.
Museum Shop - The main foyer of the museum holds the castle shop, and the toilets (both with baby changing facilities and disabled access). Here is where you will also queue up for a guided tour of the caves and tunnels beneath the castle. These roughly hour-long tours run three times a day; leaving at 11am, 2pm and 3pm, although in the summer months, depending on demand, they may run more often. There's a small charge (£2.50 for adults, £1.50 for concessions, but children under five go free), but the tour is well worth it. Here is where you can also obtain Explorer Trail sheets, an activity that involves locating 10 historical characters around the museum in order to receive a Castle Explorer Certificate. A fun way to look around the museum and find things that you might not have done otherwise!
'It's All Greek To Me' - In the foyer of the north hall stairwell of the museum is a small but pleasing collection of Grecian pottery and ornaments - together with some historical information to match, giving an overview of Ancient Greek culture.
'Threads' - In a darkened section of the museum in the north hall, just by the museum shop, is a collection of fine clothes from throughout the ages of Nottingham. This entire section is often thought to be closed, as the lighting is very low to preserve the cloth and linen pieces. There is a strict policy of no flash photography here due to this. There is a dressing-up box in one corner, but most of the costumes will only fit people under four foot tall.
Ballantyne Collection - located just by the stairwell to Lower Floor 1, the Ballantyne Collection is a large display of many fine ceramics from British studio potters, dating from the 1950s to modern day.
'Every Object Tells a Story' - The majority of the museum's original collection can be found here, plus many Asian artefacts, including Japanese and Persian armour. For children there are some discovery-type games, plus a hands-on Noah's Ark display with representations of animals in different forms, such as ceramic pigs and bronze lions.
Sherwood Foresters' Regimental Museum - The Sherwood Foresters' Museum celebrates the triumphs of the regiment, and among its collection are many uniforms, medals and histories of members of the unit. An entire section is devoted to Albert Ball, while there's a special member of the regiment to find, hiding in amongst the collection. A small mouse, complete with rifle, is hidden in a new place every week. He's quite tricky to locate, and he has a partner in one of the paintings on the wall.
Café - The café can be found by passing through the 'Every Object' section and the south hall where a circular mosaic portraying the castle's history can be found in the floor, or from outside via the fire doors in the summer. The friendly staff provide good hot or cold drinks, and there is a wide selection of sandwiches and cakes on offer for reasonable prices (well, as much as you'd spend anywhere else). The 'banoffee'2 muffins or the banana/chocolate cake are recommended, as are the large choc-chip cookies. Seating can be found inside or out, and the surroundings are light and fresh with large french doors and a high ceiling, together with parts of the old Ducal Palace (like gates and ironwork), making for a pleasant dining experience.
Lower Floor 1
The Story of Nottingham Gallery - The entrance hall greets you with a voice-over asking if you've come to see Robin Hood or the castle, and then explains why neither can be found. There are cut-out figures of Robin Hood here, much like those that can be found at the seaside, which you can stand behind, stick your head through and have your photograph taken. This gallery then takes you through the history of the settlement of Nottingham, from the Bronze Age through to the World Wars. Amongst the displays are a representation of an Anglo Saxon burial, medieval pottery, an oak door frame from 'the Palace of King John', Civil War armour and riding saddle, coins and manuscripts, and many other intriguing little artefacts and stories from the history of the city, including a model of the castle at its peak in the 16th Century. The castle model has three short audio descriptions explaining the castle site, which are both interesting and entertaining, and there is also a video presentation on one of the paintings found in the Long Gallery, Nottingham from the East, attributed to Flemish Baroque painter Jan Siberechts.
One of the more popular exhibits, however, is the rare medieval religious alabasters, as many fine religious artefacts were lost during the Reformation. Hidden away were three such pieces that were once garden ornaments; one of the Madonna and Child, a St Peter, and an unknown Bishop, all found under the floorboards of Flawford Church in 1779. You can also see the original walls of the Ducal Palace sticking out from the modern features and, down the stairs to the Lower Floor 2, one of the original kitchen ovens used to make the Dukes their daily bread.
Lower Floor 2
To honour local legend Robin Hood this section of the museum holds a child friendly exhibition called 'Hood in the Wood', with interactive sections for the Under 5's, a dressing up section for adults and children, natural history displays showing what Sherwood Forest would have looked like in the 12th and 13th Centuries (including depictions of the common animals to be found in that time period), video displays with stories about Robin Hood, and other outlaw-related activities.
Caves & Tunnels
The caves and tunnels under the castle are many, but some are open to the public, and guided tours of these are available daily at the castle shop. Those that can be seen are:
David's Dungeon - This underground room is found down some steep steps and through a quite damp and claustrophobic tunnel. But not for long, as the space opens up into an old guardroom beneath what was once Romylow's Tower. In the 'dungeon', which was more likely a storeroom, it was said that King David II of Scotland was once kept prisoner. The old arches that stabilised Romylow's Tower above the room can be seen, as can old stone furnishings, probably carved out by guards who kept watch over a garderobe3 - in case spies wiggled their way up into the castle through the poo chute, as it were.
Mortimer's Hole - Just outside in the café courtyard is the opening to what is known as Mortimer's Hole. An iron grate covers the entrance to what appears to be the opening to a well. However, the remains of an old sandstone carved spiral staircase and lots of small change can be seen, as it appears that what looks like a wishing well is a wishing well and many visitors drop their coins down the shaft in hope of their dreams coming true. You can gain access to the bottom of this shaft from the top of the outer bailey (with a tour guide), and the 98 metre-long tunnel that runs under the outer bailey walls exits at the bottom of the cliffs in the Brewhouse Yard, near Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub, touted as the oldest pub in Britain.
Mortimer's Hole was so-named due to events in 1330, when Roger Mortimer, lover of Queen Isabella and usurper of Edward II's crown, was seized by supporters of the young Edward III and dragged through the tunnel to his later trial and execution. As you move along the tunnel it exits onto the cliff walls, where during the English Civil War cannons were placed - so it has become known as the 'Gun Emplacement'. The tunnels were more than likely used to deliver goods more easily into the castle, or for troops to smuggle their 'wives' inside the walls of the castle for a bit of illicit nookie. The tunnels are surprisingly roomy, but the sandstone steps can be both steep and quite slippery, due to the loose sand. It's not recommended that you go on a tour of the caves and tunnels if you feel you can't handle the 300-odd steep steps, but you can still experience a tour by checking out the already-mentioned presentation in the Story of Nottingham section of the museum.
Getting There & Getting In
The castle is really easy to find. Once in Nottingham, make your way to the Market Square, just outside the Council Houses (where the Lions are). This big patch of open space is unmistakable, there are tram stops and a fountain, plus swathes of shiny grey granite paving stones. From there, look for Friar Lane. You'll pass the Walkabout pub on your left and numerous bus-stops to your right. Walk up Friar Lane until you come to Maid Marion Way. Cross over this busy street (once named the ugliest in Britain) and follow Friar Lane further up until you come to the corner of Friar Lane and Castle Road. The name of the second road is a dead giveaway to where you are, and if that's not enough you should see the Gatehouse smack bang in front of you.
Getting into the castle is a lot easier than it used to be. Admission to the castle grounds (as the museum is free) is from between 10am until 5pm from March to September (summer opening), and 10am to 4pm October to February (winter opening) every day of the week except Mondays, when it is closed to the public for maintenance (aside from Bank Holidays). A fee of £5.50 for adults / £4 for children or concessions (old-age pensioner or student) will get you into the grounds (plus admission to the nearby Brewhouse Yard Museum), unless you can prove you're a Nottingham resident and then you can get in at a discounted rate of £1 for adults / 50p for children or concessions - a bus pass, Nottingham Citycard, library card, student card, proof of employment in Nottingham (like a business card or ID card from place of work) or even driver's licence with address and postcode on should do the trick, but only during the week. You'll have to wave either your ticket or this identification under the nose of the Gatekeeper to gain admittance.
On weekends and Bank Holidays everyone has to pay to get into the grounds, regardless of where they're from, or who they are. If you're really stingy you can get into the grounds without paying before 10am (when the ticket shop opens), or wait until 4pm as that's when tickets stop being sold - but if you wait until late afternoon you'll only have half an hour to take in the museum, as the building closes its doors at 4.30pm. Disabled access is adequate and the Gatekeeper will radio ahead if there are any specific needs required for a visit.
For a history of the castle then read the following Entry: Nottingham Castle - from Normans to Tudors.
1 The post continues to the current day.
2 Banana and toffee.